EVANS: Bringing home the green

Darden students have proven that profitable business models and sustainability are compatible

With climate threats looming, it’s no wonder we Millennials have shown increased concern for human impact on the environment. And yet hope for meaningful environmental policy continues to slip away into the great divide between staunch conservatives and demanding liberals. If we could learn to depoliticize grave issues of environmental degradation by reconciling party values, then perhaps we could grease up the old political engine and deliver a future that would make Jefferson proud.

Most people would agree that both money and nature have value. After all, the health of human economy depends on the integrity of its earth. Fortunately, our species is beginning to realize that we can no longer profit from the destruction of our own roots. Can a more progressive definition of wealth help restore the productive debate that once powered our nation forward? What if values of sustainability, prudence and environmentalism made for financially favorable business models? Exciting new developments at the Darden School of Business are showing that you can make the green and save it too.

Second year Darden student Alexander Bazhinov has made eco-consciousness the vein of his career. Putting i.Lab’s nexus for innovation to good use, he has started his own company called Dream Power. The idea is simple — eliminate the upfront costs of clean energy technologies to help local businesses become more energy self-sufficient. Dream Power installs eco-friendly utilities like LED, Solar and Smart Thermostat and collects a temporary percentage of incremental energy savings. By coupling incurred costs to increased client profitability, Dream Power’s business proves more meaningful than a one-time exchange. “Sustainability makes economic sense,” says Bazhinov, “Prudent energy investment brings greater purpose to the transaction. It’s win-win for all.”

Bazhinov is one among many Darden students promoting business models imbued with a richer green. Nearly a quarter of the student body participates in the school’s chapter of Net Impact — the nation’s leading non-profit organization focused on inspiring business students to transform environmental and social concerns into career opportunities. Rob Langdon, Vice President for the University chapter, manages Darden Impact Ventures — a new group serving “innovative for-profit enterprises focused on generating financial and social or environmental returns.” If venture capital can reap profits from promising new initiatives by staking ownership in these companies, why not apply the same principles to more progressive entrepreneurship? Point being, there’s money to be made in strengthening our social and environmental fabrics.

Bazhinov, Langdon and other Darden leaders in sustainable business have recognized new dimensions of market value. “Customers increasingly care about the environmental and social implications of their purchases,” says Elizabeth Tual, president of Net Impact at Darden. As American consumers become more aware of environmental challenges, business must ultimately meet this demand by pushing supply towards a greener economy. Darden has me convinced that MBA-business students will be among the first to bring home the green.

Net Impact at the University is among many business programs across the country catching on to new opportunities emerging with a more sustainable economy. A new market for environmental consciousness burgeons as people realize that our reliance on dirty energy is incompatible with a healthy planet. Besides, why invest billions in the dangerous extraction of finite resources like oil and gas when there’s a seemingly infinite supply of wind and sunshine right outside? The American workforce is learning to adapt as environmental and social concerns gain precedence over quarterly gains. Profiting at the expense of the people and planet is becoming increasingly taboo. However, it takes an educated workforce to turn that reality into an opportunity. At Darden, that innovative spirit begins with a cup of coffee.

For years, Darden’s First Coffee tradition generated volumes of wasted paper by bringing its entire community together each morning for a communal cup of joe. In 2012, students decided to tackle the problem as part of the Net Impact case competition. The Refreshing First Coffee (RFC) initiative has since made reusable mugs the new Darden standard, turning the morning assembly into a celebration of sustainability. Coffee has become Darden’s symbol for sustainable business — endless energy for a greener future. Perhaps the broader University could manage a similar operation. After all, our communal caffeine fix is a ripe opportunity for channeling sustained energy towards smarter consumption.

Darden’s dedication to promoting progressive business shows that there is money to be made in helping our environment. Sure, sustainability on a small scale does little to address the political inertia crippling the United States from enacting meaningful environmental policy. However, sustainability coupled with entrepreneurship and economic incentive has the power to make our transition to a greener economy more palatable to parties across the divide.

Darden’s lesson is clear: short-term profit-driven interests should be replaced by long-term value-driven objectives. While we Millennials have the will to make that change, it might take a cup of coffee to stir our energy into action. As Darden can attest — capital, like caffeine, has never been more sustainable.

Will Evans is a Viewpoint Writer.

Correction: an earlier version of this column referred to "Darden Impact Ventures" as "the Darden Impact Venture Fund." The column has been amended to reflect that the group is not yet a "fund."

related stories